Meet the Man Who Made the Oil Industry Possible

edwin drake photo

Looking for the person who may ultimately be to blame for the massive oil spill in the Gulf? Well, may I introduce to you Mr. Edwin Drake. Sure, judging from his grainy, black-and-white photograph, he doesn't seem like much of a culprit, but we have Drake to thank for the rise of nearly the entire US oil industry. Despite his original career as a train conductor, Drake would eventually be regarded as being responsible for revolutionizing the fledgling "rock oil" business with his game-changing innovation: the oil drill. And as you are already aware, his idea caught on.Drake was born in 1819, the son of a farmer, and as a teenager began working for the railroad in Connecticut. Over the course of several years, he became a train conductor, a position which allowed him to travel for free--though failing health sidelined his career shortly after. Still, the company permitted him to ride the rails free of charge.

His ability to travel for free would eventually help land him a new job. In 1858, while staying at a hotel in Pennsylvania, he met George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth, the founders of a petroleum business, Seneca Oil, centered on exploring a new source for lamp fuel. Their company was in need of someone to travel around and check out possible oil seeps--and Drake's free train use made him the ideal candidate for the job.

At this time, the most common fuel for lamps was whale oil, derived from the animal's blubber. However, recent innovations in refining petroleum made 'rock oil' an enticing alternative, but no viable method of extracting oil from the ground was available beyond collecting it from places it bubbled up from the ground naturally. In 1858, Seneca Oil sent Drake to see about one such place in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Upon finding the oil seep, Drake tried to use a steam-powered drill to dig into the ground towards its source, but encountered a problem. The drill wasn't able to bore a tunnel deep enough without the sides of the hole caving in. To counter this, Drake then devised driving a pipe into the earth first, then drilling through it to prevent collapse.

Unwilling to finance his experimentation, Seneca Oil withdrew their support, but Drake continued drilling on his own anyways, at the sluggish rate of one foot per day. Finally, after the drill reached a depth of 70 feet, oil began to bubble up. Soon, his make-shift oil derrick was collecting 15 barrels a day.

drakes well photo
Photo via geoexpro

Drake's drilling method quickly caught on throughout the region, though he failed to patent the idea and profited little from it. When he died in 1880, he would have been virtually penniless if it were not for an annuity of $1,500 given to him by the State. Still, his contribution to the rise of the oil industry would be indelible. Standard Oil, the company that made John D. Rockefeller the richest man in history, would later erect a monument in Drake's honor.

In 1909, just 50 years after his drill struck oil, the Wanganui Herald noted Drake's important legacy:

His tools were crude, but his scent was keep and his industry was unflagging. Petroleum had been found in springs in several parts of Pennsylvania before 1859, but Drake was the first one to dig into the earth for its marvellous (sic) treasure of oil. His jagged hole in the ground, however, was the beginning of petroleum production as a great world industry.

While today's feeling regarding petroleum are clearly more varied than they were 100 years ago when our thirst for the stuff was merely wetted, we've come a long way since then. Poor Drake could likely not have imagined the consequences of his seemingly simple innovation.

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